Oral Roberts University theology professor Jeffrey Lamp says heaven has always held the interest of charismatics and Pentecostals because of their focus on other-worldly topics. A fascination with life after death among the general public spills over into the church as well, he notes. He sees a renewed fascination with the end times as being linked to the interest in heaven.
“They’re all generally concerned with eschatology—what happens in the last analysis—and that has kind of cosmic dimensions,” Lamp says. “[The questions being asked are] what happens to reality in the end, but also what happens to individuals?”
Alcorn says this resurgence is needed, since Bible colleges, seminaries and churches fail to teach enough about our eternal destiny. He attributes this lack of emphasis to faulty interpretations, which he too has followed in the past, he admits. Much of the teaching fails to distinguish between heaven—where Christians currently go—and the new Earth, or new Jerusalem, pictured in Revelation 21-22, which follows Christ’s triumphant return, he says.
A belief that we will return to glorified bodies for eternity is crucial to viewing heaven as a restored Earth, where the physical realm isn’t evil, Alcorn says. Accepting this thinking about the resurrection means banishing the belief that eternity will be spent floating in the clouds, plucking harps. That concept is a primary reason many Christians lack an excitement about heaven, he says.
“That means I can look at this life and say that eternal life doesn’t mean the elimination of enjoying the beauty of trees, flowers, animals and meaningful relationships; being creative—the arts, drama and literature. These things are part of the way God made us. That’s what He intended the world to be,” Alcorn explains.
Indeed, boring depictions of heaven over 2,000 years of Christian pictography are one of the things atheists rebel against, says D’Souza—who has debated such noted skeptics as Christopher Hitchens and Peter Singer.
“Heaven is portrayed as a motionless place with angels and perpetual worship and humans in a kind of divine choir,” he says. “Everyone is bathed in a sort of glow, but nothing seems to happen. Ironically, it’s the Christian portrayal of heaven that has caused a lot of people not to want to go there.”
Though an interest in heaven may be on the rise, many Christians draw the line at supposed visits by those who are alive in heaven. Over the years, the crop of books on heaven has drawn skepticism and criticism from those who say the personal claims fail to line up with the biblical narrative.
Lamp offers a caution about any account: Don’t get too carried away with the details. Although ones he has read generally reflect John’s vision of new Jerusalem, he thinks people tend to take these images far too literally and miss the Bible’s symbolic significance.
He also says paying too much attention to heavenly images can become a form of escapism and a way of overlooking earthly obligations.
“What tends to happen is, people look at it and think: Won’t it be great when I get to heaven? Look at all the cool benefits that await me,” Lamp says. “I think the real focus of [the book of] Revelation is on God’s triumph and what that means for us, not just in terms of future benefits, but also a concern for what that means for the present time.”
Alcorn, who liked Piper’s book, warns against accepting the ideas of other authors if their work conflicts with Scripture. In his extensive research, the president of Eternal Perspective Ministries has read books that tell of encountering an angel of light who reassures the author that all is well, even with those who don’t believe in Christ.
“That’s a half-truth,” Alcorn says. “God does love everyone, but to come back [and] tell people, ‘All is well; you don’t have to change,’ is very different than, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.’”
He adds: “Whenever someone comes with a message that people don’t need to be spiritually transformed or born again, I would say that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. That may well have been Satan.”
Bible teacher Anne Graham Lotz says questions about heaven and debates over whether biblical language is literal or figurative can obscure a key reality: Heaven is real.
She notes that the apostle John, the same disciple who said he witnessed Jesus walking on water, feeding the 5,000 and raising Lazarus, also said he saw heaven (see Rev. 21). Jesus Himself, she adds, said He was going to prepare a place for His followers.
“There is a place being prepared for us,” says Lotz, author of Heaven: My Father’s House. “It’s an actual, literal, physical place. That gives us hope as we look at our world around us, which seems to be unraveling in so many ways, whether it’s nationally, internationally, politically or environmentally.”
Lotz hopes more Christians will probe the subject of heaven by studying the Bible and seeking to understand it for themselves.
“It’s broader than just needing a new vision of heaven,” she says of the cartoonish images that tend to dominate concepts of heaven. “I think we need a renewed commitment to the Bible—to read it, study it, understand it and live by it.”
Sigmund agrees, saying as marvelous as heaven is, he is more concerned that people accept Christ so they can enter heaven when they die.
“It took a long time to write the book,” he says of the 20-year lapse between his accident and his original volume. “I didn’t think anybody would believe me. But if nobody believes me, I’m still obeying God. People who don’t want you to talk about it usually want to deny there is a heaven.”
Ken Walker, a freelance writer based in Huntington, W.Va., is looking forward to a reunion in heaven with his second-oldest stepdaughter, who died of a heart attack in 2005.
Watch testimonies from people who say they have died and gone to heaven at videos.charismamag.com
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